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You’ve Been Accepted to Columbia. Oops, Our Error.

The New York Times logo The New York Times 4 days ago By CHRISTOPHER MELE
The campus of Columbia University in Manhattan. © Michael Appleton for The New York Times The campus of Columbia University in Manhattan.

When an applicant to the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health got an email on Wednesday saying it was “delighted to welcome” her, she said she was overcome with euphoria.

She began sobbing, and her body shook.

“I couldn’t even control my body,” said the applicant, a 23-year-old for whom Columbia was the No. 1 choice. “My teeth even started chattering. I didn’t even know that could happen.”

That jubilation lasted only about 75 minutes, however, as a second email arrived informing her — and 276 other prospective students — that the acceptance notices had been sent in error.

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When the applicant got the follow-up email, she said she had the same physical reaction as before — but for opposite reasons. She said that when she called the admissions office, a person who answered the phone apologized but could shed no light on why it happened.

“This is a really big mistake,” said the applicant, who requested anonymity because she was still awaiting word on her application and feared antagonizing admissions officials. “It’s ridiculous. I don’t understand how they can get away with it and just say ‘sorry.’”

For applicants, the episode added anxiety to a time already fraught with it. Which school accepts — or rejects — an applicant can have broad implications about a student’s future finances and career path.

The errant email from Columbia was the latest in a string of similar mistakes by big-name universities. Carnegie Mellon University last year emailed about 800 applicants to a graduate computer science program to say they were accepted, only to email them again later the same day to say, in effect: Oops, not really. Similar episodes happened at Tulane last year and Fordham in 2013.

In 2014, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published an account explaining how it had sent an email about undergraduate financial aid that erroneously told applicants they had been accepted. Time magazine inventoried a list of errant admission episodes dating to 1995. One of the more spectacular failures occurred in 2009, when the University of California, San Diego sent 28,000 students an email saying they had been accepted when they had not been.

In its second email on Wednesday, Columbia University attributed the mistake to “human error” but did not elaborate. A university official was not available on Thursday night to comment.

The second email, which was signed by Julie Kornfeld, vice dean for education, said that the university was “working assiduously to strengthen our internal procedures” to ensure it would not happen again.

“We deeply apologize for this miscommunication,” the email said. “We value the energy and enthusiasm that our applicants bring to the admissions process, and regret the stress and confusion caused by this mistake.”

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